‘Jam on the Groove’ Brings Model of Solidarity to L.A.


Professional pop dance in Los Angeles remains so hopelessly enslaved to the record industry that it’s enormously liberating to find a hip-hop show with nothing to sell except its own limitless energy and expertise. That show is the off-Broadway revue “Jam on the Groove,” which opened a 14-performance run at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater on Tuesday.

Among its other achievements, this 85-minute cavalcade offers our racially troubled city a model of solidarity between African Americans and Latinos. And it celebrates dance forms, styles and techniques that go back to the 1970s with full awareness of how that legacy has been distorted by show business in recent years.

“What we want to do tonight is destroy all the negative myths about hip-hop culture today,” says Steve “Mr. Wiggles” Clemente, the undeclared but unmistakable star of “Jam on the Groove” and a core member of GhettoOriginal Productions, which wrote, composed, directed and choreographed the show.


Consequently, the rap lyrics heard periodically focus on social injustice without glorifying crime or degrading women. And the dancing seems to represent a conduit away from rebellion toward a positive expression of identity.

However, the 13 dancers and one deejay in the cast ultimately prove far less intent on reforming an abused idiom than generating a state of pure ecstasy through one inspired group playoff after another. Yes, some of them spin upside down on the tops of their heads, on their hands, on their shoulders--with Roger “Orko” Romero the unassuming champion of this kind of acrobatics. But such fireworks only accent dances that exalt a more dazzling intricacy: unpredictable, virtuoso changes of impetus, twists of limb and displacements of weight erupting within a single body--with all that action varied and embellished among seven, eight, nine other bodies careening across the stage.

Even with the occasional unison passages, it’s a more individual style of hip-hop than the spectacularly honed ensemble dancing of Rennie Harris’ Pure Movement, the Philadelphia-based men’s group that has twice appeared at Cal State L.A. (most recently in May). It reminds you that street dance has always been a vehicle for personal display, connecting “Jam on the Groove” to the tap traditions created on some of the very same streets.

Indeed, in its most conventionally structured choreographies, the show reworks several familiar tap formats. For starters, there’s a clever shadow duet featuring Kenny “Ken Swift” Gabbert and “Flow Master” (who goes only by his nickname) with roots in Astaire films. And there’s also a clumsy knockoff of “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” titled “Who’s the Mac.”

Much more assured in its storytelling and tone, the “Shaolin Temple” sequence adapts Jackie Chan kung fu movies into a comic showpiece for Flow Master, Mr. Wiggles and Jorge “Fabel” Pabon, with the last named especially adept at parodying the wretched dubbing and cartoon villainy of martial arts epics.

Fabel and Mr. Wiggles also update “Petrushka” and other ballets about puppets who come to life in a duet that becomes truly magical when the latter cuts his strings, sprawls on the floor in a tangle of limbs and then blows up an imaginary balloon to float weightlessly across the stage.


Perfectly modulated technical refinement doesn’t end here. “Moments” begins with a brief, intense modern dance solo for LaRhonda Ragland (one of three women in the show), followed by a male sextet exploiting liquid unison finger ripples, matched arm-flow, sharp shoulder contractions and sinewy articulations of the neck.

The men are lined up, one behind the other, short to tall, forming a pagoda of bare torsos and arms. And very, very quickly, their quasi-Asian body sculpture and their smooth yet powerful movement fuses with the text that accompanied the Ragland solo in a poetic celebration of masculinity. The ghetto male as the god Shiva, perhaps. Certainly something more profound than mere virtuosity in a show almost always superbly in touch with every facet of its world.

* “Jam on the Groove” runs through Oct. 5 at the Veterans Wadsworth Theatre, Veterans Administration grounds, Brentwood. Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets: $13 (students) to $30. (310) 825-2101.